The Eleventh Street Cowboy Bar in Bandera looks like one of those hard-core watering holes that gets swept only when a drunk cowboy is dragged out the door. It’s a small saloon, with a clientele and decor straight from a Hill Country pasture. When Charlie and Bruce Robison walked in at about midnight on a Sunday early this summer, they were greeted by a bar-lit update of a campfire sing-along: three weathered cowhands singing George Hamilton IV’s “Abilene” as another played guitar.
The men’s boots and Wranglers were covered with dust, and dirt was caked in the dried sweat on their shirts. They nodded politely as the Robison brothers sat down at a corner table. As the bartender brought Charlie and Bruce a round, the guitar was passed, and someone started playing Marty Robbins’ stampede tragedy “Utah Carol.” A cowboy and his wife tapped their boots to the beat, lightly jangling their spurs. Another kept time by spitting snuff juice in a bottle. None of them missed a lyric.
“See, that’s the thing about Bandera,” bragged Charlie in his hoarse, Marlboro growl. “Everybody in this town loves country music, and everybody knows how to play at least a couple of old cowboy songs on guitar.” The Robisons appreciate the fidelity to the classics. Today country music sounds nothing like what the men at the Cowboy Bar knew growing up. These days it is all about the ladies. Witness the Dixie Chicks: three women playing their own instruments, picking their own songs, and releasing the best-selling album ever by a country group. But the way the Nashville big wheels have softened male performers in hopes of appealing to the same corner of the market borders on tragic. Current country hits come in two forms: great songs performed by women and piss-poor songs performed for women. If the old-timers at the Cowboy Bar felt more comfortable singing old Bobby Bare tunes than “Goodbye Earl” or “You Had Me From Hello,” that was fine by Charlie and Bruce.
So it was interesting that no one recognized the Robisons that night. They had grown up in Bandera, but more important, Music Row is counting on the two of them to make country music safe for men again. Billboard magazine has called Charlie the “male country poster child,” and the New York Times referred to one of Bruce’s songs as just “what Nashville needs to lure substance-starved listeners back to country radio.”
You can bet, however, that if the Robisons had brought their wives, the local boys would have taken note. In 1996 Bruce married Kelly Willis, the alternative-country queen who presaged the gal-power movement. Charlie’s wife of a year and a half, Emily, plays banjo for those same Dixie Chicks who set the Nashville tastemakers on their ears. Most dead folks know a couple of their songs. Questions of the wives’ influence on the brothers’ ascension aside—Charlie and Bruce’s greatest struggle lately has been to shine through their wives’ shadows—the effect of the girls’ presence in the bar would have been obvious: The Robisons would not have had to pay for a single drink all night. Instead, they were just a couple more beer drinkers waiting for last call. They got out their wallets and ordered another round.
Neither Robison looks like the man to restore the old equilibrium to country music. Charlie looks too cool for country. When the 36-year-old appeared on Austin City Limits last year he wore a brown leather coat over an untucked blue shirt that lit up this eyes like sky-blue neon, and he declined to wear the traditional cowboy hat over his blond crew cut. Bruce, almost two years younger, looks too tall. At six seven, with brown eyes and hair, he is just as handsome as his brother but in a softer way, with an unassuming manner that usually lets the spotlight fall elsewhere, particularly when Charlie is around. They both write honest songs about life’s everyday victories and defeats, but Bruce sings his in relaxed cafes to people who sit still and listen. Charlie quit needing to sing months ago—the rowdy crowds at his relentless live shows sing whole songs for him. But if you knew nothing at all about the Robisons, you could tell them apart with one simple rule of thumb: Charlie is a performer, and Bruce is a songwriter.
For most of their lives music was a matter of simple economics. When they were growing up in Bandera, the only entertainment they could afford was listening to the music that floated out of the Cabaret’s front window and sneaking into the Arkey Blue’s weekly dances. By the time they formed their own country bands in Austin in the early nineties, they had identified music as the easiest way to get by without actually doing any work.
Over the next few years the boys followed the typical career path of Austin musicians, playing around town, releasing small records. But Bruce’s songs showed an intelligence and a maturity that seemed impossible from someone content to float in the Austin breeze. “I just tried to write narrative songs, with nothing between the lines and not making any judgments. It’s not allusive, or whatever you call it; it’s much more prosaic than it is poetic.” He left out perceptive. His first great song, a look at the breakup of his parents’ marriage called “Angry All the Time,” was so intuitive that it made you stop and examine your own relationships.
Charlie’s act developed before his writing. “We kind of caught on because it was the trendy thing at the time—the retro country thing,” he says of his first band, the Millionaire Playboys. “But I hadn’t figured out yet how to create something new. I was writing country music from the fifties.” Once he quit worrying about what the couples spinning across the dance floors wanted to hear, his natural voice emerged, dark and sarcastic, blending perfectly with his don’t-ask-me-I-don’t-give-a-damn stage persona. In his backhanded tribute to celebrity, “Sunset Boulevard,” he equated fame with success, cross-referencing the National Enquirer, Charlie Sheen, and Kato Kaelin.
As their reputations grew, Nashville took notice. Bruce got his current publishing deal with Carnival Music, and Charlie signed with Warner Bros. to record a full-on major-label record. Talk in Austin had him prepackaged as a bad-boy alternative to the then-thriving hat-and-dimple acts. In the mid-nineties, though, edgy Nashville meant Alan Jackson with a cigarette, and when Charlie refused to fill out the album with radio-friendly material, they sent him back to Texas.
In the spring of 1998 Blake Chancey signed Charlie and Bruce as the first two artists on Lucky Dog Records, a new arm of Sony Nashville. Chancey’s stock was high: His latest project, the Dixie Chicks (Charlie and Emily would later meet as Sony labelmates), looked on the verge of banishing the Spice Girls to the bargain bins. Sony gave him room to develop the brothers.
As expected, the Lucky Dog release sold slowly by Nashville standards. But Charlie’s Life of the Party and Bruce’s Wrapped and Long Way Home From Anywhere did well on the Americana charts, their videos got heavy play on the Country Music Television (CMT), and a tour of Lucky Dog artists drew good press and decent crowds.
Still, it wasn’t until this spring that Chancey’s investment paid off. Bruce landed a cut on Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance, which debuted at number one on Billboard’s country chart. Bruce’s song, about a breakup with Kelly called “Lonely Too,” was singled out by the New York Times and Time as an example of the direction in which country music needs to head to regain its relevance. In August Tim McGraw and Faith Hill started performing a duet of “Angry All the Time” in concert, and McGraw recorded it for his next record. “The crowd seems to love it, and it’s one of our favorite moments in the show,” says Hill, even though it is miles removed from her and her husband’s standard valentines.
In March Charlie’s star ascended over a different part of the Nashville skyline. After months of increasingly steady radio play in Texas, CMT put his video for “My Hometown” into heavy rotation. It’s an easy tune about keeping true to small-town roots, the kind of song that could wind up as the theme for graduating classes in every rural Texas high school. Kids started swarming to Charlie’s shows, and a bona fide phenomenon unfolded, distinct from traditional Texas dance hall shows. The crowd doesn’t dance, the sawdust floor being far too valuable a piece of real estate for fans who want to get closer to the star. Instead, they holler at every drug and murder reference in his songs like Holy Rollers speaking in tongues, even though many of them look like they’re smoking the first cigarettes of their lives.
When Chancey saw how both males and females were carrying on at Charlie’s shows, he realized he might have a performer who could fill the man’s man mold that performers like Hank Williams, Jr., once occupied. Then, when Life of the Party charted in April, almost a year and a half after it was released, Chancey bumped Charlie up to Columbia, one of Sony’s mainstream country labels, where he will get the full Nashville push. The plan is to let Charlie sound like Charlie, but when the record, tentatively titled Charlie Robison, comes out in January, don’t be surprised if the killing and cocaine endorsements are relegated to the album cuts.
“Right now, in mainstream country, the men aren’t having a lot of fun,” says Chancey. “They’re all just a bunch of balladeers professing their love.” As he sees it, the purified Nashville air is primed for the brothers. “‘Angry All the Time’ made it honorable to talk about not getting along with your spouse. The song was pretty intense, unlike anything going on in this town, and Bruce got a lot of critical acclaim for that.” Chancey is billing Charlie as “the guy all the girls are going to want to go hang out with and all the guys are going to want to buy a beer,” a characterization being made with varying degrees of lewdness all over Nashville.
Those do not sound like descriptions of performers who are hiding behind their wives’ skirts, and although nobody in the know is making that suggestion, Charlie and Bruce will always have to deal with it. Before the Womack album, Bruce’s biggest songwriting royalty checks always came from Kelly’s records, but he would be a fool to stop feeding songs to her; there is no better singer and it keeps the profits in the family. Charlie’s visibility was certainly enhanced when the Chicks started playing his CD between sets on their current tour, and no doubt People magazine would have been less interested in photos from his wedding if he had married Toni Price.
While those instances show how the Mrs. Robisons might get more people to look at their husbands, they do not explain why Nashville has so much faith in them. “It shows that it’s all about the songs,” says Texas songwriting dean Guy Clark. “Bruce and Charlie write and play incredible songs. And if you write good songs, they’ll get to the right people, and they’ll get out.”
The brothers dismiss notions of spousal competition. “If we were Courtney Cox and David Arquette, that would be different,” Charlie says of Emily’s fame. “But a career like hers scares me to death. I don’t like growing pains, and although I know Sony wants something huge, I’ll just keep writing the same stuff. I’ve quit worrying about their expectations.”
For Bruce, ever the younger brother, his and Kelly’s complementary talents take the edge off the real competition: He will never sell as many records as Charlie. “I don’t want to be Garth Brooks. If I am able to have a career [in Austin], writing my songs, playing a little bit, going on the road and doing small shows, I would feel like I had pulled off the great train robbery. We’ll see. In two weeks it may be ‘Hello, midlife crisis!’ and I’ll be driving around town in a Miata with a UT cheerleader, telling her about how country music is like haiku.”
Back at the Cowboy Bar, the guitar eventually made its way to Charlie, who led the boys in a ragged version of “Detroit City.” At the end the most practiced player, or maybe just the least greased, took the guitar back and looked at Charlie with a glint of recognition. “You play pretty good there, young fella,” he said. “What say you and me harmonize on an old Alabama tune, ‘Lady Down on Love’?”
Charlie washed back a laugh with a sip of Miller Lite and agreed. He had been recognized, all right, as someone who grew up listening to a different kind of country music. As they approached the chorus, Charlie put out a cigarette and told his younger brother, “Here you go, Bruce. You go high; I’ll go low.”
Bruce let out a reluctant, “Okay, Charlie,” like a guy in a canoe eyeballing a waterfall. “Now she’s a lady, down on love / She needs somebody to gently pick her up,” they began, and as expected Bruce’s and Charlie’s voices ran together the way only siblings’ voices can, two sides of the same coin. Somewhere in the mix a fourth part could be heard, a cowboy at the bar singing a bass line underneath. “She’s got her freedom, but she’d rather be bound / To a man who will love her, and never let her down.” Note-perfect four-part harmony.
When the song finally ended—not gloriously, not mercifully, just finally—the guitar continued on its way from cowboy to cowboy, another round of songs, another round of beer, until an abbreviated version of “America the Beautiful” from the floor and a sincere, “See you fellas tomorrow,” from behind the bar closed the night. Lights out.
As the brothers walked out to the truck, Bruce commented on his anonymity. “It’s always nice when I come home and tell people I’m from Bandera and they look at me and say, ‘No you’re not, you’re wearing Hush Puppies.’”
Charlie looked at Bruce. “I’m sorry, but those shoes are gay.”
“I’m sorry I don’t have on my official Texas singer-songwriter uniform, Charlie.” That might have helped, along with a nametag. Or maybe they should have just brought their wives.